Twelve Days' Breath
By Chandri MacLeod

Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: PG
Pairing: john/rodney
Categories: slash, angst, hurt/comfort, established relationship
Warnings: none
Spoilers: Some very general ones for Season 4 plotlines.
Summary: Rodney's never been good with anything that lacked explanation.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.


Rodney McKay has a process for things like this. He has a process for most things, worked out by painful long experience, because he's no good with doing anything by instinct. Most people, he's noticed, don't think about it at all. He's sure Teyla never does, for instance. Teyla trusts what she feels, sees it, often, as more important than what she thinks. To Teyla, emotions are just something that happen, that guide you when you need them, that give truth without explanation.

Rodney's never been good with anything that lacked explanation. Not knowing how something works, why something works, leaves him feeling adrift, angry. Unsafe. Which is maybe the operative word for this particular situation. He stayed at arm's-length for most of his life for a very good reason - because only people close to you can hurt you, or in this case, scare him senseless by getting cut up by a lot of knives (because of Rodney's stupid mouth) and remain unconscious for far longer than can possibly be considered appropriate.

Teyla tries to comfort him, to calm him, to tell him that John's strong, that he'll be fine, that everything will be all right. Rodney suffers this politely for one day and thirteen hours before relapsing into his natural state, which is not really fit for company, so he takes his turn by John's bedside at night while everyone else is asleep.

His process involves blaming John, so he spends a lot of his evenings muttering sarcastically under his breath. "I don't know who told you you were impervious to sharp things" and "not everyone is as dazzled by your unearthly beauty as I am" and "seriously, if you die, I am going to kill you" mingle with the beeping and clicking of the medical equipment, and he wakes up every morning to a hand on his shoulder, shaking gently.

"What?" he says, squinting up at Ronon in the early grey light. "What time is it?"

"Time for my turn," Ronon says, calm and even as always. "I brought muffins. Want one?"

"Huh?" Rodney's staring at John's still face, searching for some sign of wakefulness, but there isn't one. He shrugs. "Sure."

Ronon steps outside the curtain for a moment, and Rodney looks around - left, right - and then leans forward briefly to press his lips to John's clammy forehead, to whisper another of a long line of threats/pleas that breaks off into a yawn. By the time Ronon's back he's standing, zipping up his jacket, and Ronon hands him a muffin and a cup of - glory hallelujah - hot coffee.

"You done?" Ronon tilts his head.

"I - yeah," Rodney says, not blushing at all. Third morning in a row, and this is something they don't really talk about, because Rodney's not sure if it's intentional or not. But three mornings in a row Ronon's done this, come to relieve him and then stepped out of sight just long enough for him to - well, Ronon's a good guy. Rodney's sure as hell not going to question it. He's been pretty sure for a while that Ronon and Teyla know, but being pretty sure and being sure aren't quite the same things.

He can't clasp John's hand in a strictly platonic way without messing up the tubes, so he brushes his fingers along the inside of his arm instead, gently, lingeringly, shivering at the contact, because they haven't been doing this long enough that it's not always awe-inspiring that John lets Rodney touch him like this.

He leaves the infirmary with a curt nod as Ronon settles into his abandoned chair. This is just something they do.

***

Rodney's process is time-tested. It's not something he ever had to bother with when he lived on Earth, mainly because he never got emotionally-involved-enough with people that he could be, honestly, bothered if they lived or died. It wasn't out of malice, really, more out of expediency. Anyway, experience since had shown that he wasn't much good with caring about things, anyway.

The process requires that he pay attention. He's good at that. Not as good as John when it comes to it in hospital beds - the man could out-stare a Sphinx on that count, and Rodney's more stubborn but he's not as good at talking doctors into things - but in terms of plain patience, it's the only area in which he's ever had much discipline. It comes of being stubborn, he knows. He is the very opposite of easygoing, and the same patience that lets him nurse a grudge lets him sit by a bed for days at a time without acknowledging anything so trivial as realism.

He's lucky these days, in that he doesn't have to pay attention by himself, that he can trade off with his team, and when it's John the Team has auxiliaries who are plenty willing to pitch in.

The next night he comes by to find Sam already there, reading a physics journal with her feet propped up on the edge of John's bed. She's got a red fine-point Sharpie in her hand and she's writing notes in the margins and it makes him remember why he used to be in love with her. He spends a couple of minutes watching her read out the more ridiculous of Arthur Sornaz's latest work in fluid dynamics in a low voice occasionally interrupted by rough chuckles. Then he steps into a break in the mockery and clears his throat. Sam looks up at him and blinks, quickly sitting up and pulling her jacket straight.

"Hey, McKay," she says, tucking her hair behind her ears with the odd, nervous air she gets only when she's caught out trying to act normal. Rodney grins despite himself, because itís only due to Sam that heís now familiar with the feeling from both sides.

"How long have you been here?"

She glances down at John, pale and still against the sheets. "Just a couple of hours. Teyla had to go mediate a dispute in the wing we gave the Athosians." She shrugs, glancing at her watch. "I should probably get back to the control room, though. My shift." She folds the journal in half, glances at him, and then holds it out. "Have you read this one yet?"

"I - no, I haven't," Rodney says, stuttering because even after all this time he's still not sure how to take it when people are intentionally nice to him, least of all Sam.

She moves past him, then turns back and seems to hesitate momentarily before reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. "He'll be okay, Rodney," she says, softly, not looking at him, but down at John. "He'll - you'll both be. Really."

He wants to snap that obviously, they always are, but there's something in her face that makes him reconsider. Something earnest and warm. Something she's very careful not to say aloud.

"I..." he's flustered, and he's fairly sure his face is red.

She pats his shoulder again. "Don't sweat it, McKay. We're all mad here, right?"

And then she's gone.

Rodney stares after her for a long few seconds, wondering if he should be worried. John isn't nearly as worried about being caught as Rodney usually thinks he should be - after all, it's not his homophobic military at issue, here - but they're still pretty careful. Since nobody mentions it, he tries not to dwell on it too much, which is a personal victory for him - successfully not dwelling, that is. Rodney's a dweller. He always has been.

But once, months ago, Rodney was the one hurt, and he woke up to find her there, the rest of his team back on the planet where he'd gotten shoved off a cliff to explain to the natives why this was a bad idea and rescue the anthropologists stranded in the canyon where it had happened. He was surprised, because the two of them had reached some kind of detente but hadn't exactly been socialising, but Sam just shrugged off his questions and told him it was something people did.

"Which people?" he asked, because he had a headache that was making it hard to see.

She just smiled, shrugged, Sam's way of avoiding the uncomfortable parts while facing the necessary parts head-on. "We're always in trouble here, Rodney. You know that."

"So, crazy people," he griped.

"You know what they say. You don't have to be crazy to work here," she muttered, "but it definitely helps."

When she leaves him alone with John, he sits down and starts to read, skipping the articles Sam has already eviscerated but scanning through her comments. They arenít as sarcastic as his own, but a lot more pointed, and somehow more cutting for their politeness. Add to that, Rodney would bet that Sam actually sends in her thoughts when she gets the chance, whereas Rodney usually loses interest partway through and never gets around to it.

When he turns the page, he finds sheís left the marker folded inside the back cover.

He smiles a little. Taking on bedside vigil duty means Sam is one of them, now. Simple as that.

***

When it's been five days and John still hasn't woken up, Rodney beards Keller in her den (where she's been hiding) and demands to know why. She sighs at him, repeats what she told him in the beginning, that there's been a lot of trauma and there's no way of knowing how long it will take. John will wake up, or he won't. Rodney thinks she's forced into bluntness by the fact that he's being pushy and shrill, something he doesn't even realise until the conversation's already over and he's stalking back to the labs. He has to stop and lean against the wall, feeling suddenly short of breath, because fuck, there's inability to shut up and then there's bringing down the wrath of the U.S. Air Force by acting like a hysterical grieving widow. He's known for being loud and brash and inappropriately honest, but even he realises that there's a difference in tone this time. Maybe because now he feels entitled.

He gets himself under control and gets back to work.

***

The process has never had to extend for very long. Usually it's a few days, or he's hurt, too, or there's too much going on - the sky falling, the wraith coming - for him to obsess. It's never been as long as seven days, not unconscious, not unchanging. Rodney's never had time to move past stubborn and background-frantic and into Acceptance like Heightmeyer's replacement - Wells, Wilson, he can't bring himself to care enough to learn the manís name - keeps tentatively pressing him to do.

Luckily it lets him move back into angry, because it means he can push back against the hollow growing in his gut, eating up a little more of him with every day that John's dead to the world.

And don't even think that, he scolds himself.

It means he can snap at people who try and comfort him, that he can focus all his denial on his work, that he can hate the Sedarans and their rampant xenophobia that sent the team running for their lives, sneaking back to the gate the long way and under attack the minute they got close.

It's easier with Ronon and Teyla, who know when to stop asking stupid questions if they ask them at all, and they don't. Ronon never asks anything, but greets them with solemn shoulder-clasps and grim-faced nods. Teyla folds him up in her arms when they're alone by John's bed and doesn't say a word, and she's the only one Rodney feels safe to hug back. He's sure Teyla knows. Teyla knew before they did.

On the eighth evening, Rodney can't take his shift at John's bedside because one of the water-treatment systems in the northern quadrant goes down. He spends thirty hours up to his elbows in pipes full of substances best left unexamined and by the time he's done sluicing off in his shower afterwards, he's too exhausted and it's almost sunrise anyway.

He falls asleep in a towel on top of the covers, and he's woken up early by another minor crisis with the ventilation system. It's mid-day before he remembers, and then it isn't his turn.

He stops by on the afternoon of the tenth day and hovers outside the curtains. Teyla's there, apparently knitting something (probably chain-mail), and talking idly in a soft voice, like she's having a one-sided conversation and just not giving John a chance to answer. And for the first time since John got hurt Rodney hesitates, can't bring himself to go inside. He tells himself he just doesn't want to interrupt them.

Teyla comes to the lab that night, as he's working through dinner and into the wee morning hours, and stands next to his chair and sighs. "Rodney," she says, meaningfully - not that Teyla ever says anything without meaning, "you know that it may help, to have people there."

He scowls down at his hands, at the Ancient device presently refusing to surrender its secrets. "That's never been proven," he mutters.

"Jennifer believes it," Teyla says, and lays a hand on his back, firm and warm. "I know that this is difficult..."

It's a leading statement, an invitation to open up. But Rodney thinks that if he opens up he might all come spilling out through the rent and never pull himself back together. It's not a new feeling, but it's new to have it unaccompanied by adrenaline and the distant sound of explosions and people shouting.

When seconds pass and he says nothing, she gently touches the back of his head, leans in to touch their foreheads together, and Rodney's still scowling, but he shuts his eyes and leans into it out of sheer habit.

"I will see you in the morning," she says to him, evenly. "Major Lorne will sit with him tonight."

"Yeah," he says, "okay." And he feels like crap, but not enough to put away his work and go back. He can't decide whether it would be worse to be there to watch when John died, or to miss it and wonder what it would have been like.

Neither option leaves him with any room to breathe, and so he dives into the ZedPM research and flatly denies them both.

***

Rodney's radio crackles to life in the dead of night on the eleventh day, and reflex has him up and pushing his feet into his shoes before he's fully awake. Reaching for his earpiece, he shoves it into place and barks: "What? What?"

"Relaying a message, Doctor McKay." It's Doctor Biro, sounding harried. "Doctor Keller says you should get down-"

Rodney misses the rest of it, because he loses his radio on the flight out the door.

John's heart has stopped. By the time Rodney reaches the infirmary it's started again, and John is breathing again, and John is stable again. Keller puts her hands on his shoulders and tells him, ridiculously, that John's going to be okay, that his readings have improved, that she's sure - as sure as she can be. She smiles at him, reassuringly, touches his face, asks him if he's been sleeping. It's sincere concern, and Rodney tries to take it as it's meant, to smile thinly and nod his head and hustle her back to John's side to make really really sure.

He waits until he's back in his quarters to lose his cool entirely, to slide down the wall next to his door and put his head between his knees gasping until he can breathe again, tears running down his face.

John isn't going to die.

***

John wakes up the following afternoon, in the middle of the day while everyone's working, and the city is peaceful and busy. The infirmary is empty of everyone but the two of them, and Rodney has been vibrating at the edge of his chair for two hours when John's eyes slowly open, eyelids heavy and face slack as if he's drunk.

But it wasnít a drugged sleep, and he's properly awake after not very long, eyes drifting and then tracking and then fixing on Rodney. His smile is the true and open one that almost no one else ever sees, and it both warms Rodney in thoroughly irrational ways and chills him to the bone.

"Hey," John says, his voice rough from nearly two weeks of disuse. He swallows, takes the straw Rodney brings clumsily to his lips, and when Rodney sets the cup back on the side table he smiles again. "Guess I'm gonna live."

Rodney laughs, a sharp, painful noise that he's aware sounds more like choking. "Donít joke," he whispers, and John frowns at him, reaching out a hand. Rodney doesn't even look to see if they're being watched before he takes it, fingers closing too-tight around John's wrist, now free of needles and tubes, and he feels light-headed again, like he can't get enough oxygen.

"Hey, hey," says John, and after a searching look he's scooting over in bed. "C'mere. Don't - just c'mere."

Rodney finds himself clambering into bed like it's normal, like it's become normal, and John pulls Rodney's head down to his shoulder, hand cool and calm and strong, and Rodney lets him, breathing in his skin, the chemical smell of the infirmary, the deep beat of John's pulse on the side of his neck.

"It's okay," John's saying, hand resting in his favourite place, cupped around the back of Rodney's neck. His hands feel cold, but they always do compared to Rodney's. "I swear. See? Not dead."

"Yeah, well, youíre lucky, youíve been asleep," Rodney mutters, annoyed. "For the last three days people have been trying to make me feel better because you were going to... I really hate that new - what's his name? Walters?"

"Wellen," John corrects him, absently. "And obviously he's an idiot. I'm fine."

Rodney lifts his head to glare down at John. "You have a hundred and thirty-seven stitches, you lunatic. In no world does that qualify as - "

John derails him completely with another wide grin. "Yes, Rodney, stitches. Which means all the important bits are still inside."

"You were unconscious for twelve days," Rodney says, voice breaking on the last word. "You were... you don't get to do that."

John raises an eyebrow. "Get hurt?"

Rodney rolls his eyes. "Well, obviously. But since you can't follow instructions you need to at least be awake - you need to have your eyes open, I need to be able to talk to you - "

"Rodney." John's thumb is stroking gently back and forth at the nape of his neck, and he sounds annoyingly unruffled. "Deep breaths."

Mutinously, Rodney complies. John pulls him back down, and Rodney goes, curling fingers into the sleeve of John's scrubs, eyes shut.

"I stopped coming," he admits a minute later, in a small voice.

"Huh?"

"I stopped - we've been taking turns. I missed my turn yesterday. And the day before that. I'm sorry. They started to act as if you weren't going to... and I just couldn'tÖ"

He swallows against the lump in his throat, presses his face into John's shoulder, feels the hitch of breath as what he's said penetrates. But John's hand keeps moving, gentling, soothing. He canít explain how much better this makes him feel, how easily it grounds him, but while heís in the moment he can handle not understanding it. John makes senseless things seem acceptable, as long as heís there.

"It's okay," John says, quietly. "I wouldn't want to watch you die, either."

"I came back, though," Rodney adds, muffled by the cotton.

"Yeah," John agrees, and presses his face into Rodney's hair, the smile in his voice. "That's the important part."

Rodney doesn't know if it's chance that no one else comes - because the longer he lies there, the more aware he is that anyone could come - but nobody does. The room is quiet and empty of everything but the two of them and the cooling afternoon sunlight from the window crossing the floor. And it's nice. It's a kind of nice they don't often get to indulge in, just lying in bed together, and how fucked up is it that they only get to do it now because John's held together with staples? It's a kind of nice Rodney's only just now learning to trust.

"I dropped a house on that guy," he mumbles, at length.

John re-arranges himself, folding an arm around Rodney's shoulders, worming his cold fingers down under Rodney's collar. "Which one?"

"The one that... with the big knife." He gestures vaguely at John's midsection, which is criss-crossed with livid lines of tidy stitches under the scrubs. "The one that..."

John sounds proud, and Rodney doesn't need to look to see his expression, the goofy grin and the ďCoolĒ written across his face. "Yeah?"

Rodney squirms. John's hands are really cold, but now doesn't seem the time to accuse him of being one of the walking dead. "Yeah. Well, Ronon shot him. But I'm the one who pulled the roof support on their crappy mud longhouse, so we're calling it a joint effort."

"I bet."

Rodney rolls his eyes. "Oh, shut up."

John laughs, low and deep in his chest, and Rodney feels it vibrate through his very bones.


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